Martian law and order

19 October 2015

Interview with

Dr Tony Milligan, King's College London

While it's clear that the technical challenges are enormous, if we ever did Marsmanage to set up a one way trip to Mars, how would the first settlers function as a society? What kind of laws would exist, if any, to start with? And what would happen to the first child born in Mars? These are questions being considered by astrobiologists and ethicists, including Tony Milligan, from Kings College London, who explained to Georgia Mills what could happen if we're not careful. 

Tony - If it's a very small group of people, they're just to inherit the initial manned structures of programmes to get to Mars. So we had Ashely speaking about being crew commander of a group of seven people but if you begin to introduce larger numbers of people - something like more like a stable human community with the prospect of staying there and rearing children and so on - it's not obvious that you can scale up that authority structure so that it works. There is a danger here and the danger is that in some respects, the political structures that Mars guides you towards are not necessarily going to be stable ones. And what I mean by that is that it's an exceptionally dangerous environment. A great many things can kill you.

The settlers would be immensely vulnerable, a situation in which anyone who controls say, the oxygen supply or who was in control of the water supply would be effectively in a position to establish some form of political dominance. And that's a dangerous thing because we know that authoritarian systems create their own culture of descent as it were. Under accepting the vulnerable circumstances of Mars, we couldn't afford to have the kinds of violent descent that we have down here on Earth.

Georgia - I see. So, a rebellion would probably just end up wiping everyone out who was there in the first place.

Tony - Yeah, we all die in a rebellion.

Georgia - Not ideal then. So, if mars lends itself to a dictatorship like this, do you foresee that democracy is feasible?

Tony - Yes, I do strangely enough. The reason for that is that dictatorships are precisely for generally descent. So, I think in the long run, the most stable structures would be those which allowed people to feel included and which allowed people to feel that their arguments, their problems were tackled. However, not a democracy of a sort that would look anything like terrestrial democracy that would have to be significant differences.

Georgia - This is going to be - excuse the pun - so alien from anything we have here on Earth. How do we go about setting up these new rules? How do we do it?

Tony - How do we do it? Gosh! You can approach this from two directions. One is advanced planning. You draw something like a road map to transition from initial command structures to a more democratic structure and that's kind of the ideal. And the second option is you rely upon the settlers themselves. At some point in time, they're going to turn around and say, looks the Earth is exceptionally remote. We don't have to do what the Earth tells us anymore. And that's a little bit more dangerous but that's also a foreseeable pathways as it were to specifically Martian political system.

Georgia - I'm thinking now of the settlers from Europe going over to America and then America declaring its independence. Could we have a Martian independence day?

Tony - Yeah. I think we could, but we can't all, as if were, dance like it's 1776, we can't have that large scale militarised upheaval because again, everyone dies in a military conflict.

Georgia - If you blow up the tea on Mars, everyone dies.

Tony - If the tea goes then everyone goes with it, yeah.

Georgia - Now thinking long term, if these colonies do succeed and someone gets born on mars, I guess they would technically be a Martian?

Tony - Yes, yes, and they're going to have certain problems because, whereas it may be the case that the initial settlers could come back to Earth if things go badly, for those born in Mars, it's extremely unlikely that their physiology could cope with a return to Earth. Their bone density wouldn't be right for it.

So, we have to get this right. If we're going ahead with this process and if we are bringing people into being under circumstances which is not of their own choosing, then we have to ensure that there is the possibility of a good life for them.

Georgia - This is quite sad being born on mars, seeing Earth and all the fun we're having and they're not being able to come back.

Tony - Yeah. Being just on the edge of the carnival and you can't go in.

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